Finding facilities

With a charter comes the search for school space. Here’s how one Memphis operator is doing it.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Freedom Preparatory Academy's high school is housed in the former Lakeview Elementary School owned by Shelby County Schools.

When Roblin Boxill made the career jump from lawyer to charter school founder seven years ago, she had little knowledge of buildings and maintenance.

Now she can look at ceiling tile and detect asbestos. She can accurately estimate square footage in a potential classroom. And she knows that if a building doesn’t have a fire sprinkler system, it’s not worth her time.

As CEO of Freedom Preparatory Academy, Boxill is like many Memphis charter leaders who deal with the daily challenges of finding facilities and operating new schools in typically aging buildings.

Of the 45 charters authorized by Shelby County Schools, eight are housed in school buildings that have been closed by the district; six lease space and two bought the buildings. The remaining charter schools are housed in commercial buildings.

Next year, thanks to last week’s school board vote, the local district’s charter sector will grow by seven more schools, whose operators must secure their own facilities.

Freedom Prep operates one Memphis charter under the state-run Achievement School District and three under Shelby County Schools, including an elementary school that opened this month in South Memphis.

Finding potential school buildings that are also affordable has been one of Freedom Prep’s biggest challenges as an operator.

When a charter opens in a building owned by Shelby County Schools, the charter pays for rent and regular maintenance. If authorized by the state-run Achievement School District, the charter operator is responsible for utilities and repair, but not rent.

Freedom Prep has been paying $178,060 annually to Shelby County Schools, plus utilities and maintenance, to house its high school at the former Lakeview Elementary School. But it’s now seeking to buy the building and its 15 acres outright for $735,000. The proposed purchase is to be considered Tuesday night by Shelby County’s school board.

The operator’s new elementary school launched inside of the Mt. Pisgah Family Ministry Complex in South Memphis, which also houses Freedom Prep’s offices. For that space, Freedom Prep pays $81,000 per year, plus utilities.

Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.
PHOTO: Freedom Preparatory Academy
Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.

The school now has about 120 kindergarteners and first-graders, and Boxill expects the budding elementary school to run out of room by next school year, necessitating a move. But she’s not sure where. Buildings that are well suited for a school often come at a high rental price that “basically takes it out of the classroom,” she said.

“(Real estate) is not the business that we’re in,” she said. “Starting a charter school is like starting a startup business, and always from scratch.”

Since charters in commercial spaces are not eligible for money from bonds, other funding for facility improvement comes from conventional loans, investment funds and charter support organizations.

Facilities are just one of the challenges being examined by Shelby County Schools’ new 27-member charter compact committee, of which Boxill is a member. The panel was created earlier this year to look at issues that come up between the district and its growing charter sector. But Boxill said the higher priority for the committee at this point is clarifying academic performance standards following the school board’s decision last spring to revoke four charters over performance issues.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Follow the money

Audit: NYC issued $2.7 billion in noncompetitive education contracts — and often violates its own rules

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology in July.

The city’s education department routinely violated state law and its own policies in issuing contracts worth billions of dollars — mostly awarded without a competitive bidding process.

That’s according to a blistering audit released Friday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the first major audit to scrutinize contracting by the de Blasio education department. It found that the department issued $2.7 billion contracts without a competitive process in fiscal year 2016, or roughly 64 percent of all spending on contracts.

The education department routinely failed to properly oversee its vendors, paid them late, and often directed them to begin work before proper paperwork was filed with the comptroller’s office, according to the audit.

“This investigation shows that DOE acts as though the rules don’t matter,” Stringer said in a statement which included 20 recommendations to fix the process. “When it comes to contracting, this is an opaque agency that refuses to accept responsibility, that often uses inaccurate arguments to defend backwards organizational practices.”

Some highlights:

  • Out of 521 “limited competition” contracts, the city directed vendors to begin work before filing appropriate paperwork on 85 percent of them. In one case, a contract was filed two and a half years after the vendor began work.
  • The education department did not correct sloppy oversight of vendors, despite a 2015 audit that urged them to do so. In some cases, “there was no evidence the DOE conducted performance evaluations, as required by the DOE’s own procurement rules,” the audit found.
  • The DOE spent $2 million to pay for “goods or services that had already been improperly purchased in violation of DOE’s procurement rules.”

Stringer’s findings come less than a month after the comptroller blasted the city’s management of education technology in a separate audit that found the education department has lost track of thousands of computers and failed to create an appropriate tracking system for them. Stringer’s harsh criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department come shortly after endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.

The Bloomberg administration also faced sharp criticism for awarding contracts without soliciting competing bids. The administration’s critics said the mayor was inappropriately applying business practices to public spending. But Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, dismissed the criticism, saying he’d “never seen [an audit] that didn’t say you couldn’t follow procurement rules a little closer.”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said the city’s procurement process is “rigorous” and “many of this audit’s conclusions are incorrect.”

“We perform background checks on all vendors and post them online, maintain the appropriate documentation on procurements, and recently implemented an electronic performance evaluation system,” Mantell added.